From the impact of digitalisation to the changing role of the HR function, four HR leaders share their key priorities in the new world of work.
By Simon Kent
Rarely has the HR function faced such a time of upheaval and challenge. Caught within a rapidly changing world and facing disruptions ranging from digitalisation to demographic shifts, HR managers and directors are looked to for support, direction, and solutions for their business’ most important asset: people. Yet even with an increasingly important role in the workplace, the transition from HR directorship to board-level status cannot be taken for granted. Here, leading HR directors tackle pressing questions in order to prepare for the future of HR.
Far from being just a trend or buzzword, digitalisation is a reality for businesses—and the implications are huge. The growing presence of sophisticated technology in the workplace will change the nature of work, but it will also capture data that can help drive businesses forward.
Mark Stewart, HRD and general manager at Airbus, says that just as it is impossible to fl y an aircraft without information such as altitude and air speed, it is impossible to direct a business without tracking key measures. Take, for example, attrition. He says that his company captures clear reasons for employees leaving, enabling the business to act proactively in response. “You can have great KPIs around everything,” he adds, “but you need to know the real temperature of the business, and that means moving on from random surveys to getting real-time data.”
The London School of Economics and Political Science also emphasises data collection, says Director of HR Indi Seehra. However, it is necessary to understand the context around that data. Seehra says that his organisation’s attrition data opens the door to understanding the implications of deeper business factors such as the mental health of staff and students.
In the construction industry, data collection has given HR Director Dawn Moore and her team at Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure important insight into the health and safety experience for employees, including the impact of sleep patterns among night workers. “That gave us a great base for improving the terms and conditions for employees,” she says. Importantly, by tracking the data and the effect of changes made to company policy, HR has been able to show a commercial impact on the business.
“Identify what’s important for your business,” advises Megan Giannini, senior vice president and CHRO at Lumileds. “If we want attrition to improve, we need to think about how effective our reward programme is and how we might make that better. We can then drill down into the data and identify if we need to shift the strategy in certain areas.”
Technology in the Workplace
The advent of the next industrial revolution alongside the growing use of AI, machine learning, and robotic technology is forecasted to change the make-up of the workforce in every sector. HR professionals need to be ready for these changes and have strategies in place to manage their impact on company operations. But what does that entail?
Moore forecasts a great deal of change within the construction industry, as digitalisation and the rise of robotics could completely automate certain elements of building work. “People’s jobs will change but we will still have jobs for people,” she says, adding that HR industry associations should work to help their members facilitate the forthcoming transformation. “The fact is the average millennial will be doing jobs that don’t exist at the moment and we need to make sure they’re ready for whatever’s coming.”
Learning and development programmes will have a large impact as roles change. “I think employers should think more about retraining and reskilling because there are more employees who are able to be retrained than ever before,” says Seehra.
Stewart agrees, adding that government grants target people who are trying to get back into work. “Wouldn’t it be better to change the dynamics within the organisation and reskill people within the workplace rather than having them cast out and then trying to find their way back in?” he questions.
HR at the Board Level
Whilst the importance of HR to business is indisputable, it remains an unfortunate fact that few HR leaders ascend to the very top of their organisations.
Moore says that there is a tendency within the profession to underestimate the function and its impact. Within her role, she has been involved in many business-critical decisions, and with that comes understanding the IT agenda, company finances, and putting together clear business cases for new initiatives. “Too often, we just talk about the people side of things when really that’s just the start of the process,” she says.
“Some people just don’t want a board-level role,” says Giannini. “If you want to take that route, you need to decide early on in your career because you’re unlikely to be a good CEO without different functional experience. I don’t know if many HR professionals are managing their careers like that.”
Stewart, who has made the shift to overseeing his company through his position as general manager, agrees that a broader business role might not be for everyone and ultimately, HR professionals can only be motivated by their own personal challenges and desires.
“Get to know your business, your market, your product, and your finances from end-to-end,” he advises. “Test yourself in a way that might be uncomfortable. Work in operations and see what it’s like being on the shop floor, managing large teams.” Stewart also advocates taking on non-executive roles or becoming the trustee of a pension scheme—anything that will give HR leaders the opportunity to understand and get involved with the wider challenges of running a business. In this way, HR directors can relate their specific knowledge and ideas to the broader business agenda.